In Shi Tuo’s story, “A Kiss,”
the narrator sets up a juxtaposition of the good times in Orchard City
before the 1911 revolution against the city’s seemingly declined
state after an indeterminable amount of years. Though it may seem as though
the Revolution was the external factor that led to the city’s poor
fate, Shi Tuo’s story is intended to focus more on the human mind:
the concept of memory and how the past is perceived by the individual.
Sister Liu is the character whose life more or less leads the narrative;
it is she who left a vibrant, bustling Orchard City to become the concubine
of an unloving elderly man, and later returns for a visit and is faced
with what she sees is her dismal, nearly unrecognizable hometown. The
question arises: has the town really changed in atmosphere so dramatically
or is Sister Liu’s memory of her childhood city much different than
the reality of it?
Theodore Huters confronts this idea in “The Telling of Shi Tuo’s
‘A Kiss’” by stating, “[W]hat gives ‘A Kiss’
its special poignancy is its relentless forcing of attention on the individual
inability to perceive the full dreariness of life as it passes by and
its highlighting of the mind’s paradoxical habit of playing tricks
on itself as it believes it is groping at the truth”. By looking
at Sister Liu’s life, the reader wonders whether she is happy now
that she is married into a very rich and extravagant lifestyle, or if
she would have preferred to stay behind in Orchard City with Tigerfish,
the boy who once loved her but whose fate was to be a rickshaw puller.
Though clues to the answer of this question are rather limited, we get
a sense that Sister Liu regrets what has come of her life, especially
with the presence of the author’s word that, “if she had a
son and a daughter…she would want them only to grow up, have good
fortune, and not copy their mother’s example”. Even though
she recognizes the current despair of Orchard City, it seems as though
she still romanticizes about the life that could have been had she stayed.
Her current happiness, therefore, is relative to the happiness she perceived
she felt in the past.
“What a time it was!” the narrator exclaims about Orchard
City before 1911. When Sister Liu later returns, she “dejectedly”
looks at all the negative changes that had come about. “Perhaps
it was only the old drug shop that had not changed, but even it looked
far humbler than it had before”. Did it, though? It looks the same,
but her perception of it has changed due to the experiences of her life
since that time. In the field of psychology, the term “rosy retrospection”
is used to describe the individual’s cognitive misconception that
something in the past was better than he or she actually felt it was at
that time. The narrator is clearly reflecting upon the charm of Orchard
City as it was in the past (though it can’t even be recalled by
the narrator whether it was 1913 or 1914 or 1915), so we cannot trust
that Orchard City really once was as it is said. I infer that Sister Liu’s
present life is so dreadful that she has constructed her past in her mind
to make it seem full of wonderful times and ample possibilities that she
had passed up. Sister Luo wishes her children do not follow her example
of sacrificing her free will for her family’s sake, yet Sister Liu’s
mother had wished her daughter would not follow her own example of practicing
free will by eloping the man she loved. This is a case of “The grass
is always greener on the other side…”, meaning we tend to
believe our lives could have taken a different, and better, route than
they ended up taking.
In “A Kiss,” Shi Tuo speaks of the power of the human mind
to create happy memories out of our past to compare them to our current
bleak situation. Sister Liu sees Orchard City as dilapidated in relation
to her memory of it, but does not recognize that there are errors in her
memory. “What could this little city have that she could not forget?
No one would be willing to explain this riddle”. She thinks she
left something behind, perhaps Tigerfish, that could have offered her
a better life, but what she does not realize is that there was really
nothing there for her to begin with.